October 25, 2006

Does Brown really get things done?

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (25 May, 2006)

While the long knives are again being sharpened for this year’s installment of Friday Night Fights: Scott v Brown, the long-awaited no-holds-barred-fight-to-the-death political cage match, there’s an important question worthy of an answer:

Is Dr. Brown really “The Minister Who Gets Things Done” as he and others would have us believe? If only I had a government credit card for every time I’ve heard that phrase.

The media has willingly adopted the narrative that Dr. Brown gets things done, with an abundance of magazine profiles, newspaper editorials, fawning opinion columns (not mine) and carefully timed endorsements from those auditioning for PLP Senator under a Premier Brown. Just Monday, Julian Hall invoked this theme in The Royal Gazette when he declared that “you can’t argue with success”.

I beg to differ. Dr. Brown’s ‘success’ is an unanswered and unanswerable question; not a fact. Far from it.

The wanna-be Premier’s entire leadership campaign is based on the idea that he gets things done. It has to be. The alternative would be novel: a candidacy trumpeting deceit, condescension, ethical transgressions (Pay for Play, undeclared property sale to BHC and Club Med to name a few) and avoidance of scrutiny through legal threats and racial incitement.

Recognising this character problem Dr. Brown and his wife staged a big wet made for the cameras kiss; complete with the dutiful Mrs. Brown imploring us that “You can trust him”…a reminder of course that we can’t.

Ethical matters aside, the question remains: Has Dr. Brown got things done?

At Transport he gave us fast ferries…or fast boats to nowhere judging by the amount of time they spend moored at the end of East Broadway. The Minister gave us GPS; the benefits of which are yet to be seen after more than a year’s delay due to his high-handed Minister knows best approach.

Is buying boats and ramming initiatives down an industry’s throats getting things done? I don’t think so.

However, Dr. Brown’s preeminent claim to success rests in Tourism; where we’re all supposed to accept as indisputable his accomplishments of new flights and increased visitor numbers.

It’s here, in the very area that is supposedly indisputable, that things get murky. Why? Because Dr. Brown is a shrewd and cunning politician, one who’s acutely aware that the devil is in the details; so he denies access to those details.

Dr. Brown’s secrecy at Tourism is the equivalent of him denying his medical patients access to their records but declaring them cured. Tourism doesn’t need a faith healer.

But isn’t it a fact that air arrivals are up? Indeed. But at what cost?

How many taxpayer dollars have been sent overseas as airline load guarantees, marketing assistance or other undisclosed incentives? How much have our hotels shelled out to the airlines in deals Dr. Brown committed them to - without their knowledge in some cases?

Opening the Government cheque book wide and asking ‘what will it take’ isn’t getting things done, that’s giving away the farm. Ask any business person if they’re interested in a guaranteed profit on the backs of taxpayers and they’ll say “Hell yeah!” Businesses don’t turn down those kinds of offers.

What Dr. Brown should have been doing is building a profitable long-term tourism model; not throwing money at the airlines to spur an artificial short-term boost.

Bermuda tourism is a business, and as shareholders in that business we should focus on the top and bottom lines. Dr. Brown has been somewhat effective at pumping up the top line number through an overdependence on cruise ships and airline subsidies – trademarks of an unhealthy industry.

He knows that the majority of people only remember the headlines. The rest is hidden. What the Minister has succeeded at is generating cheap headlines at great taxpayer expense.

Dr. Brown’s success - or lack of it – should be measured against the bottom line not top line growth. But that net figure is incalculable due to an intentional lack of disclosure.

Are we spending more on subsidies and marketing than the resulting tourists are putting back into the economy? What’s the duration of the subsidies Dr. Brown committed the Bermuda Government to? Will the airlines continue to fly if the profit guarantees go away?

Dr. Brown’s unwillingness to answer those questions means that we can’t reach a conclusion on his ability to get things done. What it does is suggest that he’s generating top line growth at the expense of the bottom line; and many a failed businessman can tell you that it’s easy to make the top line look good. It’s the bottom line that counts.

While the presentation of Tourism’s statistics has become more glitzy of late, the transparency has decreased – all those smoke and mirrors I guess. The baselines have changed while the last set of numbers were just flat out wrong, while the Minister stopped reporting ‘tourists’ in favour of ‘air arrivals’? And there’s been a marked increase in air arrivals wearing suits and carrying briefcases lately. Is that a result of Dr. Brown or a tight reinsurance market?

How many of those new flights are geared at locals than tourists? Take the Miami flight for example? I recently flew on a flight which was 100% full; 50% was Bermudians going to a wedding and the other 50% was Bermudians going to Disney world.

Dr. Brown has used the tourism budget to entertain locals at the expense of attracting tourists: feel the love at a taxpayer sponsored party.

Look at this year’s Bermuda Music Festival. Dr. Brown proudly declared that attendance reached an all-time high of over 10,000 people.

But how many of those were tourists? Two thousand - less than 20%. That’s not a tourism event, that’s a local concert that a few tourists show up for. I have a good time too, but I’m under no illusions that it’s designed for tourists.

If it were the line-up wouldn’t be so R&B heavy. If we were really trying to appeal to our East Coast demographic we wouldn’t be running an exclusively R&B festival; we’d select a line-up with broader appeal. But Dr. Brown knows that he can please the local R&B fans, boost his numbers and keep the festival afloat.

Except that it isn’t afloat.

So what was the total cost of the 2006 Bermuda Music Festival? We don’t know.

What we do know is that ticket sales exceeded $700,000 this year. Wow, $700,000 you say. That wouldn’t have covered the artists’ fees alone.

A Music Festival of this scope would cost many multiples of $700,000 to stage. The budget has so obviously exploded under Brown that he’s resorted to hiding the cost in an unregistered charity headed up by his wife.

Is running an event which consistently loses money success? Not by my standards. But maybe that’s just me.

And then there’s Movies on the Beach, another ‘tourism event’. Or not. It’s another example of the Department of Tourism entertaining residents.

Maybe that’s what people want from their Tourism Minister? It’s not what I want. I’d like a tourism industry that is economically viable and doesn’t have to buy - at great cost - the few tourists who come here.

So let’s not get carried away with the idea that Dr. Brown has got things done. That’s far from certain.

What is certain is that he’s thrown tens of millions of dollars around in a cynical PR campaign intended to convince us that he gets things done, as opposed to actually getting them done.

Posted by Christian S. Dunleavy